Bobby Heugel doesn’t need to prove himself. The Houston bartender opened Anvil Bar & Refuge in 2009, and three years later, with OKRA, he pioneered the nonprofit bar model. With partner Justin Yu, he continues to run some of the city’s most beloved restaurants: Squabble, Better Luck Tomorrow, and Theodore Rex. He also makes a damn fine drink.
But when it came to opening his latest bar, Refuge, a spinoff of the original Anvil Bar & Refuge, Heugel was under pressure. The pressure to live up to Anvil, which is housed downstairs from the new space, and is still packed seven nights a week. Pressure to fill a space for which he owes rent. Pressure to give Refuge an identity distinct from Tongue-Cut Sparrow, his Southern-inflected speakeasy that, during the pandemic, decamped from downtown Houston and briefly occupied the space that now houses Refuge before closing last spring.
“We felt a lot of pressure to make sure Refuge was a firm and bold step about what we’re capable of and what we were going to be doing in the future,” says Heugel.
What that is exactly reveals itself in layers at the 50-seat bar and in a menu that’s rooted in the classics. “We’re trying to use modern spirits in a classic manner,” says Heugel, whose Anvil gained fame for its list of 100 essential classic cocktails. “There are so many new spirits that haven’t been used in classic cocktails. Then there are spirits that were never applied to cocktails widely in the past. Compared to gin, for example, there aren’t a lot of classic agave cocktails.”
Refuge’s riffs can be as straightforward as swapping Oaxacan rum for white rum in a Hemingway Daiquiri and as complex as reimagining the Americano as a French expat with Pineau des Charentes, quinquina, valerian and quassia tinctures, and pear cider.
“There are so many new spirits that haven’t been used in classic cocktails. Then there are spirits that were never applied to cocktails widely in the past."
The bar, by Texas standards, is cozy, with a single window and eight-foot high ceilings. Heugel says he leaned into Refuge’s limitations to emulate the feeling of a basement, backroom, and the sliver-sized cocktail bars of more densely-populated cities. Save for the glow of back-lit bottles on the bar’s shelves, and a replica of the neon sign from El Floridita in Havana, Cuba, Refuge is dark. There’s no overhead lighting, and servers deliver a single LED light to tables as they seat guests.
“The light populates that specific area of the room, and it makes it your space,” says Heugel.
So far, Heugel has sourced glassware from 16 countries, matching specific coupes, Collins, and rocks glasses to individual cocktails, sparing no expense—the Martini glasses for Bobby’s Martini cost $55 a pop. “We focus on everything you touch,” he says, which includes linen coasters sourced from Japan that the team washes and irons by hand each week.
If Refuge sounds precious on paper, the bar team—including head bartender Kristen Nepomuceno, Peter Jahnke, and Máté Hartai—deflates that notion. Hip-hop (particularly jazz- and soul-sample heavy artists) dominates Refuge’s playlist. Rather than a reservations-only policy, the bar’s Instagram account announces, “Walk-Ins Preferred!” And though bartenders still sport bow-ties, Heugel chose large, rose-hued bows for Refuge, a more playful sartorial choice than the tux-adjacent black bow-ties workers wore at Tongue-Cut Sparrow.
The menu, 15 or so cocktails strong, consists of originals, classics and riffs, two non-alcoholic drinks, and four “excessives,” featuring high-end spirits and priced at $24 to $36. “We bury excessives in the back because we’re not trying to sell hyper-expensive cocktails. But we have it there if people want it,” says Heugel.
Here are three drinks that distill Refuge’s approach to cocktail-making and hospitality.
Cherry, Five Ways
Roku gin, Mancino Sakura vermouth, Schladerer kirschwasser, cherry bark-almond tincture, cherry
This floral Martini riff, developed by Hartai, belies a thread of Japanese bar culture running throughout the space. (Before 2020, Heugel visited Japan seven years in a row.) Japanese Roku gin undergoes two distillations with cherry blossoms, and the Maninco Sakura vermouth—originally made for the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo with production limited to 4,000 bottles a year—layers cherry blossoms and violas onto a wormwood-heavy Italian vermouth.
The drink’s other cherry elements include German Schladerer kirschwasser, cherry bark-almond tincture (“our only kind of weird ingredient,” says Heugel), and a cherry garnish.
“We’re not modifying any of the ingredients. It tastes like a classic drink, but the flavors in it are really new,” says Heugel. “It’s probably my favorite drink on the menu.”
El Tesoro blanco tequila, Midori, Suze
The Greenhorn looks as if Ecto Cooler grew up and got a stylist, but stayed weird. The kelly green cocktail is built with big-personality Highlands blanco tequila, Midori, and Suze, then garnished with a nuclear-green cherry.
Heugel devised the drink based on one of his favorite flavor combinations: agave spirits and melons. The Greenhorn needs the agave punch of a high-quality Highlands tequila to ensure the drink won’t fall flat, he says. Suze delivers a bitter backbone, and Huegel is a big fan of Midori.
“People forget that Midori is incredibly well-made. It just has a rap because of its bright green dyed color, but it’s no different from how Campari is dyed these days,” he says.
The Greenhorn, Heugel hopes, will become a modern house classic. “I wanted to make a drink that people could order for a decade,” he says. “I also like the idea that people can make this cocktail at home and at other bars.”
Tanqueray London Dry gin, Tanqueray 10 gin, Noilly Prat extra dry vermouth, no bitters
Bobby’s Martini, the only drink to survive Tongue-Cut Sparrow, is a definitive cocktail for Heugel. The batched Martini is made with a blend of Tanqueray London Dry for its traditional juniper punch and Tanqueray 10 for its warm weather-appropriate citrus notes, Noilly Prat extra dry vermouth (classically more accurate than Dolin dry, he says), and filtered water. The menu also conspicuously notes the absence of bitters in the cocktail.
“I love orange bitters, and I like orange bitters in some Martinis. But it almost became a requirement that your Martini have orange bitters in the early 2000s,” says Heugel. “We got away from more classic forms of Martinis, and when we would travel and, especially go to older cocktail institutions, we liked the simplicity of gin, vermouth, and no bitters.”
It’s the Tanqueray blend and presentation that distinguish Bobby’s Martini, presented on a custom walnut tray in that expensive V-shaped glass with a ceramic snack bowl filled with a green olive, black olive, caperberry, pickled onion, and cornichon.
“A couple of those garnishes might be new for people, so we like that there’s a new experience,” says Heugel. “But at the same time, it’s a really classic experience.”